I have to confess that I fell for this story when I first saw it. But then I thought, "Wait a second ... you're supposed to be the meme expert. Are you falling for this without even a little skepticism?" This Malawi farting-ban story has all the earmarks of a classic viral meme. I suspected there was more myth than truth in this amusing story.
And I was right: it's just an amusing myth that grew out of a twisted version of the truth. But the success of the "Malawi farting-ban meme" turns out to have some interesting racist overtones.
I don't know about you, but I didn't even know exactly where Malawi is. I had to look it up – it's in southeast Africa.
Just a couple mouse-clicks revealed the true story, which is far less interesting than the farting-ban meme. The real story (from the BBC) is that Malawi is trying to curb air pollution. The language of the bill reads:
"Any person who vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the public to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighbourhood or passing along a public way shall be guilty of a misdemeanour."It is probably aimed at small factories, auto paint shops, leather tanneries, slaughterhouses and all sorts of other businesses that give off nasty odors and dangerous chemicals. In other words, it's exactly like hundreds of laws throughout America and Europe.
Great idea, right? But along came Justice Minister George Chaponda (an attorney), who thought the law might also ban public flatulence. And that was the birth of the viral meme. Solicitor General Anthony Kamanga ridiculed Mr. Chaponda's interpretation, but it was too late.
The Register in the UK picked up the story and basically rewrote it. They emphasized flatulence, and carefully left out the part about the Soliciter General's denial.
- Big Stink over Farting Ban – The Register
- Malawi Government Proposes Fart Ban – Huffington Post
- Malawi moves to ban farting – ABC News
- Country Tries to Ban Farting – Fox News
- ... and on and on...
So why, you might ask, do I claim this is a racist meme? Good question.
Viral memes have to have some key elements. They must be fascinating and edgy. They must be short and sweet (or in this case, at least have an aroma!). And they must be believable.
Imagine if this story had been, "New York bans public farting!" It might have garnered modest interest, but everyone's first reaction would have been "That's bogus." People would immediately spot a fake. It's missing the believable component of a viral meme.
But Malawi? What do you know about Malawi? You might know it's in Africa. You'd probably guess that it's a third-world country with high illiteracy and poor education. And you might even have the idea that they're slightly uncivilized and backwards. And if the story has photos that includes non-white people from this backwards, semi-literate third-world country that you've contrived in your mind, why, it becomes believable!
That's why I included "racism" in the title. This story spread like wildfire through America and Europe because it was about an African nation.
The truth is that Malawi is indeed facing some real challenges. They have a modern two-party democracy and a modest military that's controlled by the democratically elected government. Malawi has nice climate and lots of agriculture. But they are one of the most densely populated countries in the world and have been devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. They have a low life expectancy and high infant mortality.
Malawi faces many challenges. But they're not ignorant savages. Contrary to the stereotypes that let this meme go viral, their ministers and politicians are intelligent and well educated, and they are trying to bring the same sort of environmental protection to their country that we already have.